In a square beneath the twin spires of Cologne’s gothic cathedral, around 2,000 protesters gathered in September to urge Germany’s government to break with the Western coalition backing Ukraine and make peace with Russia.
“We must stop being vassals of the Americans,” right-wing German politician Markus Beisicht said from a makeshift stage on the back of a truck. The crowd clapped and waved Russian and German flags.
A lean man in camouflage trousers stood at the side of the stage, obscured from the crowd by a tarpaulin. A few metres away, a burly man in dark sunglasses stood guard. The rally’s organisers did not welcome questions. Most declined to speak when approached by a Reuters reporter. One protester tried to persuade a police officer to arrest the reporter as a Ukrainian spy.
The rally was just one of many occasions – online and on the streets – where people have clamoured that Berlin should reconsider its support for Ukraine. That message taps into deep connections between Germany and Russia, with several million Russian speakers living in Germany, a legacy of Soviet ties to Communist east Germany, and decades of German dependency on Russian gas.
The stakes are high: if Germany, the European Union’s biggest economy, turns its back on Kyiv, European unity over the war will fracture.
Through interviews and a review of social media posts and other publicly available information, Reuters has established the identities of key figures involved in pushing a pro-Moscow stance inside Germany since the war began, including the two men hovering near the stage in Cologne.
The lean man is a Russian former air force officer. Originally called Rostislav Teslyuk, he changed his name to Max Schlund after settling in Germany a decade ago. In recent months, he travelled to Russian-controlled east Ukraine. More recently, a Russian government agency paid for his plane ticket to Moscow for a conference where President Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker. The agency, Rossotrudnichestvo, is under EU sanctions for running a network of “agents of influence” spreading Kremlin narratives. Its head has branded the sanctions, imposed in July, as “insane.” [Continue reading…]